One of the common traits among people who come to see me is overthinking, and a lot of people want to have a quieter mind, or a less intense inner dialogue. But as people often ask me – “How do you learn to think less?”
Some of this overthinking is often experienced as worrying. This particular type of overthinking, which is more about the wider habit of overthinking rather than overthinking a particular situation, responds really well to a technique called “active worrying”. In this people are not just allowed but encouraged to worry for a set amount of time a day. There are two conditions attached to this however – they are not to pursue a worrying thought outside of their set worry time, and they have to adopt a structured way of worrying.
One of the awful effects of overthinking is that it stops people enjoying their lives, as instead of being in the moment they deconstruct their experience. People can end up trapped in the maze of their own thoughts rather than engaging with their lives and other people. There are though techniques that can work just as well with overthinking about particular situations, experiences, or relationships.
The first of these is taken from the active worrying, and is the acceptance that you cannot control everything. Overthinking can be driven by the desire to control events by anticipating possible outcomes. The issues with this approach are two-fold – firstly our minds aren’t equipped to track and compare these constantly branching scenarios, and instead of making us more prepared the exercise makes us more stressed. The second issue is that there will always be events that will be out of your control, and your mental health will be improved in the long term by accepting this.
A second technique from active worrying is that of taking action – if there is something that you can do to resolve or better understand a situation then either do it or set a firm date to do it, and return to it then. Overthinking can just become a mental habit around certain questions or certain tasks. In common with procrastination if there are certain decisions you can only make in the “right frame of mind” then actively work on invoking that frame of mind, rather than waiting for it to arise spontaneously.
The third technique is to get some perspective and distance from events, as these are powerful in helping to stop overthinking. Often when people are on holiday they find that the physical distance and separation allow them to look at their situation more objectively, and to find decision making easier. Time is also a great provider of perspective, and as little as a month or even a couple of weeks can be enough distance to show an issue in its true proportions. Techniques such as imagining yourself moving forward to those points in time and looking back, whilst simple, can be enough to provide that emotional distance necessary to stop the overthinking.
A fourth technique is to make sure that you aren’t putting yourself in situations where overthinking is likely to occur. This might be entertaining vague or unresolved fears – if this is the question then make yourself write out these fears in full. This will force you to complete your thoughts in a way that internal dialogue doesn’t, and can help you to see your fears as baseless or greatly overstated. Another way in which you might be making yourself more susceptible to overthinking is to mull over things when physically or mentally tired – instead develop the mental discipline to return to it only when you feel refreshed. The final way in which you may put yourself in a situation where you’re likely to overthink is by discussing things with other habitual over-thinkers.
The fifth and final technique is to develop a habit of mindfulness. Many people express the idea that they can’t learn to be mindful until they’ve stopped overthinking, which is like saying that you won’t join a gym until you’re fit enough to use all the machines. Mindfulness isn’t just about being more present and engaged in the moment, it’s also about self-compassion and not thinking badly of yourself when you do overthink. Instead of stepping into that stream of thought you simply note that you’re overthinking again and return to the moment.
For most people it’s this simplest of ideas that is the hardest to achieve – that in order to climb out of our hole that we must first put the spade down.
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